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Panthers show a bit too much fight as practice heats up

Tom Sorensen
Tom Sorensen has been a columnist at The Observer for 20 years and has been at the paper for 25, writing about nearly every sport in the Carolinas.

SPARTANBURG Most days the side of the practice field is nothing more than the side of the practice field.

On Tuesday it’s ringside.

Most days coaches blow whistles and air horns.

On Tuesday they should ring a bell.

In a nine-on-seven drill at Carolina Panthers training camp Tuesday morning, tight end Greg Olsen runs down the left sideline and grabs a pass. He’s moving. Is he preparing to deliver a hit? I can’t tell from the other side of the field.

I can tell that Olsen takes a hard shot from safety D.J. Campbell, and that Olsen takes offense. When the play concludes he fires the ball at Campbell.

Safety Mike Mitchell hits receiver Brandon LaFell on a route over the middle. Although instant replay is not available on the sideline, Mitchell appears to hit LaFell late. LaFell goes at Mitchell and they push and talk and when Mitchell returns to the defense, LaFell follows him. Defenders react as if LaFell is trespassing and yell at him to get back to his own territory.

On another play LaFell bangs into cornerback Josh Norman, and Norman bangs back.

DeAngelo Williams runs up the middle and defensive end Greg Hardy catches him, turns him around and almost rolls him to the ground, not hard, but as if Williams is a bowling ball. Williams tries to get at Hardy but several players intercede.

Tuesday is the 12th day of training camp and by now players are sick of blocking and getting blocked by the same people, sick of running routes against and covering the same people.

On a running play up the middle, they prove it.

“That one was a melee – a small melee on a small scale,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera says.

LaFell, 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, and Norman, 6-0 and 200, go jaw to jaw and facemask to facemask, Norman refusing to back down. While the welterweight battle ensues near the right sideline, the heavyweights tangle in the middle of the line.

Hardy, 6-4 and 290 pounds, and tackle Byron Bell, 6-5 and 340, become entangled. It’s tough to tell who starts the altercation. Lots of large people block sightlines.

Somebody throws a punch. It appears to be Bell. Hardy appears to end up on top of Bell. The offense comes to rescue Bell and the defense comes to protect Hardy.

Receiver Steve Smith drags Hardy off.

“If something exciting is going on, Steve’s around,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera says.

Defensive end Charles Johnson pulls Smith off Hardy.

At some point, 5-8, 195-pound cornerback Captain Munnerlyn rushes in as if he’s angry he was not invited.

“I would say having Captain involved is like having a small dog yipping on the side,” says Rivera, a former linebacker for the Chicago Bears.

Rivera thinks about what he said.

“He’s going to be mad about that,” Rivera says.

Kicker Graham Gano looks at the sports writers and broadcasters near the apron of the ring. Instead of punching each other, we punch letters on our cell phones.

“You’re all Tweeting the fight,” Gano says.

One of the peacemakers is quarterback Cam Newton, who pulls Charles Johnson (285 pounds) off Smith (185 pounds).

You can almost say Newton breaks up the fight.

“He better not have,” tackle Jordan Gross says. “That’s my job.”

I later say to Cam, “You aren’t supposed to break up the fight.”

“It’s a lot of things that we’re not supposed to do,” Newton says. “We’re not supposed to fight on the field, either.”

After the play, Rivera sends in substitutions and the players go to their corners.

After practice the team gathers in a circle and Rivera gestures with his hands and talks loudly.

“More so than about anything else it was about getting them to understand it’s about team,” Rivera tells the media. “We’re trying to become a team. And what we can’t have is we can’t have chippy-ness, we can’t have the late shots for anything like that toward a teammate. The concern is it escalates and it festers and it lingers and the next time you go out on the football field somebody’s taking a shot.

“And we can’t have it. I’m not going to have it. I have a set of rules. I want things done a certain way and we’re going to do it that way and if you’re not going to comply we’re going to sit you out of practice and you won’t be part of the team.”

When Rivera finishes he walks up a hill to the Richardson Building, the team’s headquarters at Wofford.

Rivera says this is the angriest he has been in camp.

He smiles and adds, “So far.”

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